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J Neurosci. 2000 Jun 15;20(12):4701-7.

Predicting vulnerability to acoustic injury with a noninvasive assay of olivocochlear reflex strength.

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  • 1Department of Otology and Laryngology, Harvard Medical School and Eaton-Peabody Laboratory, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Boston, Massachusetts 02114-3096, USA.


Permanent noise-induced damage to the inner ear is a major cause of hearing impairment, arising from exposures occurring during both work- and pleasure-related activities. Vulnerability to noise-induced hearing loss is highly variable: some have tough, whereas others have tender ears. This report documents, in an animal model, the efficacy of a simple nontraumatic assay of normal ear function in predicting vulnerability to acoustic injury. The assay measures the strength of a sound-evoked neuronal feedback pathway to the inner ear, the olivocochlear efferents, by examining otoacoustic emissions created by the normal ear, which can be measured with a microphone in the external ear. Reflex strength was inversely correlated with the degree of hearing loss after subsequent noise exposure. These data suggest that one function of the olivocochlear efferent system is to protect the ear from acoustic injury. This assay, or a simple modification of it, could be applied to human populations to screen for individuals most at risk in noisy environments.

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